How do we counter a violent culture?
It starts with an inadvertent bump or shove in the hallway or lunch line. The "offender" doesn't say sorry or excuse me. The "victim" feels disrespected.
A hard stare leads to harsh words, name-calling, threats, more shoves. Now both parties feel disrespected. Angered. Cornered. There's only one thing left to do: Fight it out.
Or maybe not.
Maybe they are pupils who participate in Second Step, a nationwide, classroom-based social skills program that teaches children as young as age 4 such life skills as empathy, impulse control and anger management.
Maybe they are learning that there are other things they can do when they get mad.
"A: Ask a question. B: Be helpful. C: Calm down. D: Don't argue. E. Encourage. F. Find a way to work it out."
Those were six of the 26 options that some of Northaven Elementary's fifth-graders came up with during a recent workshop at the annual Gandhian Conference on Nonviolence at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn.
The Northaven kids, who live in one of the more violent and isolated parts of Memphis, came to the conference on a Saturday to continue their schooling.
"We can't just be about math and English, math and English," said Louis Padgett, Northaven's principal.
"We are here to help our children become responsible citizens in the community. We're not just trying to make our test scores. We're trying to keep these kids alive. We're trying to teach them how to get along with each other."
Unfortunately, Padgett and the members of his faculty aren't the only teachers in the lives of these children.
Disciples of the culture of violence are everywhere -- in the music they hear, the programs they watch, the video games they play.
It's not just the gangsters in their neighborhood and the "gangstas" on their radio who are teaching them that violence is appropriate, normal, even preferred.
Their parents or siblings or friends teach them to hit back -- always -- or even to hit first.
"Personalities" such as Jerry Springer and Tony Soprano teach them that violence is entertaining.
Artists such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino teach them that violence is an art form.
College and pro athletes teach them that violence is just part of the game.
Leaders of nations, ethnic groups or religious groups teach them that violence is patriotic or noble or even godly.
After the most recent round of school shootings, President Bush convened a six-hour Conference on School Safety.
"The whole purpose of this exercise is to help educate," Bush said, "and if there needs to be a cultural change inside schools, for teachers to become more aware and more active."
Teachers can work on changing the culture in their schools. That's what Padgett and his staff are trying to do. But they can't change the culture outside their schools.
Children learn what they live, so how do they learn to reject violence as a solution when everything around them says that it is?
How do we keep violence out of our schools when it's so easily and profitably imported into our homes?
How do we calm a culture steeped in violence?
At the Gandhian conference, the Northaven kids took a Pledge of Nonviolence, adapted from the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love. We must meet physical force with soul force," the pupils repeated earnestly.
They will be tested every day, but they're not failing us. We're failing them.
Scripps Howard News Service